Heaven is for Real elevated above its very modest ambitions

The good news is this: in heaven, everybody’s young. The bad news: you have to take a four-year-old’s word for it.

Heaven is for Real

Two stars (out of four)

Rated: PG

Linda Barnard

Special to the Advocate

The good news is this: in heaven, everybody’s young. The bad news: you have to take a four-year-old’s word for it.

Such is the struggle in Heaven is for Real, based on the bestseller penned by real-life rural Nebraska pastor Todd Burpo about his son Colton’s assertions that he visited heaven during life-saving surgery.

Burpo is convincingly played onscreen by a very likable Greg Kinnear, who remains a consistent screen presence, even if the material he’s been handed lately rarely matches his talents.

He plays the financially challenged pastor who struggles with a failing garage door business and a dwindling congregation. He always has time for coaching duties, baseball practice, sexily perky wife Sonja (British actress Kelly Reilly) and their two young kids.

With Manitoba doing a convincing job standing in for the endless fields of Nebraska, we get an American Gothic-style picture early on of a rural family trying to make ends meet.

So when Colton (cutie Connor Corum, managing to say his lines convincingly most of the time) falls desperately ill, the Burpos turn to prayer and ask for the same from congregants, including the pastor’s best pal, a happy-go-lucky bank manager (Thomas Haden Church) and by-the-books church board member Nancy Rawling (Margo Martindale).

The boy’s recovery comes with the casually revealed news that he spent some time in heaven when he was on the operating table.

Colton’s talk of Jesus’s horse, God’s big chair and a reunion with the miscarried baby sister his parents didn’t tell him he had soon gets out and it puts his father in a strange position.

Is his son telling the truth? And if he is, how can a preacher doubt the existence of heaven? Adding to Burpo’s struggles, the church board is concerned that Colton’s story is creating more of a freak show atmosphere than religious reflection on Sunday mornings. Perhaps it’s time for a new pastor.

That struggle of faith and vocation — and Kinnear’s ability to credibly carry it off — is the most interesting element of an otherwise flat story.

Director Randall Wallace (Secretariat, We Were Soldiers), who also wrote the screenplay, turns up the folksy charm while injecting some opposing views from a doubting university professor (Nancy Sorel). Of course, they don’t have a chance next to the power of heaven.

The release of Heaven is for Real, timed to coincide with Easter, is hardly a fluke. This is a movie for the faithful and that’s hardly bad business these days. God’s Not Dead, complete with a cameo from bearded Duck Dynasty star Willie Robertson, was not screened for Toronto critics before opening last weekend. But trade publication Variety dismissed it as “typically ham-fisted Christian campus melodrama” and it earned a bottom-dwelling 17 per cent rotten rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

It also made more than $40 million since opening stateside four weeks ago with a production budget, according to The Los Angeles Times, of less than $3 million.

That’s the kind of payoff studios pray for.

Linda Barnard is a syndicated Toronto Star movie critic.

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